The Importance of General
"The illiterate of the 21st century will
not be those who cannot read and write, but those who
cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
Alvin Toffler (1928- )
In the modern world, the importance of highly specialized
scientific and technical education is well recognized. But a broad
education is also important, and this chapter makes the case for
liberal or general education (the terms are used interchangeably)
at the university level in developing countries. This argument may
seem unusual and perhaps also controversial, but it reflects the
Task Forces view that this type of education could play a
more constructive role than is commonly realized in helping developing
countries to achieve their long-term socio-economic goals.
A higher education system should meet many different
goals. These include:
- satisfying demand from students for an increasingly sophisticated
and rewarding education.
- training the people needed to run a modern society and contribute
to its further advancement.
- providing a forum in which a society can examine its problems
and identify appropriate solutions.
- offering a setting in which a societys culture and values
can be studied and developed.
In a stratified higher education system, institutions
of different types fill these needs in different ways. Professional
and vocational schools meet some needs, while open universities
and distance-learning institutions satisfy others. However, developing
countries need to be sure that some of their institutions are providing
a sufficient breadth of education to give students the abilities
that are needed in a rapidly changing world. A general education
is an excellent form of preparation for the flexible, knowledge-based
careers that increasingly dominate the upper tiers of the modern
labor force. With knowledge growing at unprecedented rates, higher
education systems must equip students with the ability to manage
and assimilate greatly expanded quantities of information. A specific
expertise in technology will almost inevitably become obsolete.
The ability to learn, however, will remain an excellent insurance
against the vagaries of a rapidly changing economic environment.
What is a General or Liberal Education?
Liberal or general education has been defined as "a curriculum
[or part of a curriculum] aimed at imparting general knowledge and
developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional,
vocational or technical curriculum." It is characterized by
its focus on "the whole development of an individual, apart
from his occupational training. It includes the civilizing of his
life purposes, the refining of his emotional reactions, and the
maturing of his understanding of the nature of things according
to the best knowledge of our time."
These words were written over 50 years ago (today one would use
more gender-neutral language).
Ideas of what constitutes a liberally educated person vary. A recent
formulation by a member of our Task Force describes such an educated
person as someone who:
- can think and write clearly, effectively, and critically, and
who can communicate with precision, cogency, and force.
- has a critical appreciation of the ways in which we gain knowledge
and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves.
- has a broad knowledge of other cultures and other times, and
is able to take decisions based on reference to the wider world
and to the historical forces that have shaped it.
- has some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically
about moral and ethical problems.
- has achieved depth in some field of knowledge.
This definition focuses on cognitive skills. It is about teaching
people to think and to learn. It also stresses breadth of knowledge
across a number of disciplines. A liberally educated person should
have an informed acquaintance with the mathematical and experimental
methods of the physical and biological sciences; with the main forms
of analysis and the historical and quantitative techniques needed
to investigate the development of a modern society; with some of
the important scholarly, literary, and artistic achievements of
the past; and with humanitys major religious and philosophical
concepts. A liberal education should leave students excited by the
world of learning and prepared to continue their education, both
in the short term through in-depth study of a specialist
discipline and in the long term as they continually refresh
their knowledge in formal and informal ways, through the process
of lifelong learning.
In some parts of the world, the term liberal education
has a conservative or traditional connotation, implying a particular
way of looking at the world. The Task Force, however, is not advocating
the universal application of a particular curriculum or teaching
method across different cultures. Instead, it is recommending that
each country design its own general curriculum to fit the structure
and values of its higher education system. Indeed, the exercise
of developing a national though not nationalistic
general education curriculum should be socially useful, requiring
a country to examine the state and direction of human knowledge
and clarify priorities for its higher education system.
As they design and impart a sound, comprehensive educational foundation,
educators need to:
- take into account their own economic, social, political and
- look for the common unifying themes that pull a curriculum
together and make it more than an arbitrary combination of alternative
- move beyond limits of traditional disciplinary boundaries to
explore the relationship between different subjects and ways of
thinking about the world.
- concentrate on the delivery, and not just the content, of the
curriculum, moving beyond rote learning to give students a deeper,
more engaged and meaningful exposure to the rich and varied world
of intellectual pursuits
Home-grown and breaking new ground: another
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC, is
justly celebrated as one of the developing world's most
impressive non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Describing
itself as a 'national private development organization',
BRAC has around 17 000 regular staff and over 30 000 part-time
teachers covering 50 000 villages. The vast majority of
its clients are women, and for the past 27 years it has
been making loans to the rural poor and other marginalized
populations, as well as offering services including education,
training, healthcare and family planning. The BRAC health
program alone covers some 25 million people, while 1.2 million
poor children now receive primary education through its
education program. About 85 000 groups of the landless poor,
with a membership of over 3 million, have also been organized.
BRAC's annual budget, 60 per cent of which is self-generated,
is now over US $130 million. Among its latest initiatives
is an attempt to set up a new liberal arts university from
scratch, based on an identification of local needs and aspirations.
BRAC started with a significant program of research among
potential employers, students, and parents, as well as successful
local universities. BRAC wanted to identify an approach for
the proposed university that would ensure not only financial
viability through good initial enrollment rates, but also
that the university's graduate stream would prove attractive
to prospective local employers which in turn links
back to maintaining enrollment on an ongoing basis. This initiative
took place in the context of BRAC's wider developmental aims
for Bangladesh. These include a particular focus on improving
the situation and influence of women, from the household level
to the labor market.
BRAC's research phase threw up several interesting insights.
For example, initially employers told BRAC that they sought
programs with a strong technical focus, for example in biology,
technology, management, and computer science. They wanted
graduates ready to go. However, on further probing
it emerged that local employers' interests were in fact centered
on obtaining a stream of graduates who could demonstrate,
in addition to their technical expertise, a much stronger
array of analytical skills, as well as a better grounding
in writing, communication and presentation skills. Their concern
in common with many, if not most, modern employers
who are considering graduates as employees was to seek
out workers with a good ability to analyze and think through
complexity, a useful level of English language skills, and
a well-rounded ability to think independently and to take
the initiative.This is the very combination of general and
specialist skills argued for throughout this report.
A study of the competition successful local private
universities showed two very popular programs: computer
science and business administration (a subject that has come
to be perceived as a gilt-edged degree by students
and employers alike). Because of the strong cultural influence
they still exert, parents of prospective students were also
interviewed about their concerns. Their biggest concern
as with all parents was quality. They wished to be
reassured that the quality of the university education offered
was internationally competitive. Like the prospective employers,
parents were also emphatic about the importance of English
language skills. Some even stated that they would not send
their children to a private university where courses were
taught in Bengali. Further, parents wished to see their daughters
take up higher education (and most of BRAC's membership base
is female), but were concerned that current educational possibilities
meant their daughters might have to look abroad for good study
options. This emphasizes one of the potential roles that educational
reform can play in promoting gender equity.
Although BRAC wished to broaden student enrollment among
its membership base, there was also recognition that for many
of these poorer Bangladeshis, there were issues around both
expense and low educational attainment levels. The proposed
fees, of between US $1500 to US $2000 per annum, are in keeping
with the upper limit on tuition levels observed at other private
universities in Bangladesh, such as NorthSouth University
and Independent University. In other words, the tuition fees
would be much more than those charged by the public university
system (which are entirely nominal at around 50 cents per
year; apparently the cost of collecting this fee exceeds the
amount collected), but not more than other private universities
supplying a more traditional education with early specialization.
But there remains a real issue with respect to how many can
satisfy the test and entry requirements. BRAC University therefore
intends to take the practical approach and enroll some, but
not all, poor students (with partial-to-full scholarships
reserved for a modest percentage of the student population
in the 4-year program). There is also a plan to create an
endowment to help fund these scholarships the rest
will involve cross-subsidies from tuition receipts
while the bulk of students will come from lower-middle-, middle-,
and upper-middle-class families.
Through an exhaustive process of research among the main
stakeholders, BRAC's feasibility study for a university has
developed into what is, in effect, an interesting new hybrid
appropriate to developing world contexts. They intend to place
an emphasis on practical and job-related skills while also
honing more generally portable analytical and English language
skills. The curriculum proposed includes 2 years of liberal
arts, which will also cover general skills, including writing,
communication, presentation, and analysis. The core curriculum
itself has courses in development economics, history, sociology,
and the sciences (physics or biology) alongside mathematics
and English. Many of these courses would have a strong 'development
studies' orientation another way in which the curriculum
is customized to national needs.
These two years of liberal arts are then followed by two
years of specialized technical training (as distinct from,
for example, the more common pattern of four years' general
education with a major and electives, as seen in the USA).
In this combination there lies a fusion between old and new
that more closely reflects students' and employers' aspirations
for both a better general education and an ability to take
up jobs requiring technical skills.
While surveys suggested a strong demand for a BRAC University
on the part of students, the biggest constraint faced is to
find good faculty, especially given that the plan requires
adoption of a more modern and active approach to teaching
as opposed to the traditional 'lecture-from-notes' method
where students are asked to simply memorize and then regurgitate
facts. It is regrettable that while the application to become
a private university was lodged with the Ministry of Education
early in 1997, confirmation has yet to be achieved. This is
in part due to an ongoing realignment of higher education
priorities in the country.
BRAC website: http://www.brac.net
Who Should Receive a Liberal Education?
Depending on the student and his or her goals, different levels
of general education are possible. These include:
- a basic grounding for all higher education students, whatever
type of institution they attend or course they study.
- a discrete and substantial component of general education,
which helps broaden the experience of students engaged in specialist,
professional or technical study.
- an intensive general education curriculum that provides exceptionally
promising, intellectually oriented students with a solid basis
for their careers or for advanced specialist study.
Within a differentiated higher education system, the more intensive
programs will almost certainly be attempted at the most selective
universities, with most professional, scientific and technical courses
remaining more narrowly focused. Selective universities prepare
many of those who aspire to leadership roles, and for them a preparation
for only the initial stages of a career is no longer sufficient.
Path-finding individuals must update and acquire new, and often
very different, skills. General education is ideally suited to this
process of lifelong learning, providing the cognitive orientation
and skills needed to facilitate continual re-education.
However, general education should not be confined to a few traditional
universities. The capacity for lifelong learning is increasingly
important for the many people who face major career shifts. Mature
students, for instance, often return to education with a determination
to change the direction of their lives. Many look for study opportunities
outside the traditional university system, through distance learning,
for example. As noted earlier, women also commonly leave the labor
force because of family obligations. Flexibility and the ability
to learn new skills have a significant impact on how successfully
they return, often after a decade or more.
Increasing the supply of general education can also help to promote
social equity and mobility. In some countries, such as parts of
Africa, India and Pakistan, a narrow and privileged segment of the
population has already received its broad education at elite secondary
institutions that offer elaborate and extensive general education
programs. As higher education systems expand, they must become more
tolerant at points of entry, while ensuring that quality at the
point of exit is maintained. This means shouldering an increased
share of the burden of providing general education, and ensuring
that those who have not had a broad secondary education have the
chance to catch up and fulfill their potential.
Singapores curriculum renewal for
In the summer of 1999 the National University
of Singapore (NUS) launched its new curriculum for undergraduates.
It was the result of lengthy consultations that began in 1997,
and brought in the views of leading scholars drawn from the
elite universities in the world.
Singapore was looking to ensure its future graduates could
walk proudly alongside any graduate from the more established
schools. They strove to develop the personal, intellectual,
and leadership qualities of students to equip them to excel
Key to the new curriculum is exposing students to various
schools of thought, helping them understand how the physicist,
the biologist, and the historian approach problems. Students
select their core area of study, but are also obliged to select
courses from an area outside their field.
The curriculum attempts to:
· synthesize and integrate knowledge from diverse
disciplines, to establish a connection between all human knowledge
· infuse students with a concrete understanding of
the process of human creativity.
It includes these subjects:
· One module each from the Writing Program and History
· Select modules from the Humanities and Social Sciences
and from areas of Science and Mathematics.
The new curriculum has already drawn praise from the private
sector. The Core Curriculum program at NUS is designed
to deliver well rounded graduates, who are lateral thinkers,
innovative, articulate and groomed to lead, said S.
Nasim, Managing Director, Meinhardt (Singapore) Pte Ltd. comparable
to the best graduates of Harvard or MIT. They will be snapped
up like hotcakes by industry.
The Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore, 19992000
Why Is General Education Relevant for
Does general education deserve support in the developing world,
or is it just a luxury for the wealthy countries? The Task Force
is convinced that general education has a clear, practical impact
on society, well beyond the love of learning and human development
Both industrial and developing countries need leaders, educated
citizens, and trained workers for industry, government and politics,
and academia. A liberal education enhances the chances that individuals
will be able to fulfill these roles with distinction. At present
many developing countries are overly dependent on the industrial
countries to offer a broadly based education to a few of their (richer)
citizens. Women are especially disadvantaged by this state of affairs,
with many families, especially those in conservative societies,
frowning upon young women traveling abroad to study.
General education also has a clear practical impact on a society.
It can promote responsible citizenship, ethical behavior, educational
ambition, professional development in a broad range of fields, and
even global integration. It stops students becoming balkanized in
narrowly focused disciplines, fostering cohesion across cohorts
whose more talented and motivated students are familiarized with
a core body of knowledge, some of which is unique to their own culture
and some of which is universal. General education also promotes
civil society through its contribution to broad-mindedness, critical
thinking, and communication skills, all of which are essential elements
of effective participatory democracy. It should foster tolerance
and ethical values, helping to encourage the social awareness and
philanthropy that are vital to a societys health and stability.
General education is also important in the development process.
It helps society look at the social and ethical questions raised
by new development policies and projects, ensuring a countrys
long-term interests are given priority over short-term gains. Within
the education sector, it encourages countries to define national
intellectual priorities and promote an intellectual identity through
the process of defining the content of a general curriculum that
meets nationally specific needs.
Finally, better general education may help reduce the brain drain.
Providing in-country general education is less expensive than sending
undergraduates abroad. For example, there are roughly 350 000
developing-country graduate and undergraduate students in the USA
alone, at a total cost of approximately US $10 billion per year,
which exceeds the individual gross national product of more than
half the worlds countries. Students who are educated at home
are more likely to remain at home, perhaps even for graduate study.
Even in cases where students go abroad for graduate study
and that is the largest group they are more likely to want
to return to a society that has offered them an intellectually stimulating
environment during their undergraduate career.
What Are the Obstacles?
In the developing world, the concept of liberal education is associated
with a variety of obstacles. Some are economic, but the philosophical
ones may be more significant.
The first obstacle is the issue of costs and benefits. High-quality
liberal education is not inexpensive. It requires more varied faculty
resources, interactive rather than passive teaching techniques,
seminars in place of lectures, and perhaps a longer period spent
in school. But the pay-off to a high-quality liberal education is
not immediate, and it has a large non-pecuniary component that is
difficult to measure.
Funding is clearly problematic, but the more extensive general
education programs are not meant for all, or even the majority,
of students. They should be aimed at the brightest and most highly
motivated in any cohort, with a broader cross-section of students
offered less intensive forms of general education. The Task Force
attaches great importance to this, as it is far less expensive and
time-consuming than offering such an education to all.
Aiming higher education programs at the brightest and most motivated
students should not be objectionable or characterized as elitism
in the old sense. First, advantage should accrue to an individual
because of intellectual capacities and efforts, and not because
of social class or wealth. Second, the Task Force advocates special
programs for disadvantaged groups at all stages of education, so
that these citizens are increasingly able to take advantage of the
best educational opportunities. Thirdly, we recognize the value
of some general education in nearly all forms of higher education,
with specific programs designed and modified for different types
of student and school.
These considerations will not eliminate financial concerns, but
they should lessen the problem. However, the problem of different
abilities remains. Not all individuals are qualified for the same
training or the same tasks, given that some tasks are more difficult
than others. This implies that inequalities in some areas are a
natural outcome. Educating the most able for positions of leadership
in all spheres of life has to be in the national interest; it is
a major aspect of stratification.
We have already noted that while the connection between the short-term
needs of the labor market and general education may be weak, in
the longer run general education is an excellent investment for
both individuals and nations. Some believe that general education
is at odds with the trend toward increasing specialization among
the labor force, especially the upper tiers. On the contrary, high-quality
general education strengthens disciplinary specialization by providing
a solid foundation for advanced learning and specialization. It
also provides a common intellectual currency for interaction among
individuals with diverse specializations.
Because general education involves in-depth and open examination
of ideas and assumptions of all kinds, it sometimes appears threatening
to those who have an interest in preserving the status quo. That
desire, however, represents the very opposite of development. Highlighting
the value of liberal education for effective leadership may also
pose an implicit challenge to the credentials of leaders who themselves
received different training, and sometimes very little formal education.
Of course, a more educated leadership is one indicator of socio-economic
Some will ask why market forces have not created a greater supply
of general education if it offers so many benefits. The reasons
relate to a disparity between the long-term public interest and
short-term needs (see Chapter 2). General education is not part
of the academic tradition in most developing countries. In addition
students are interested in immediate, and perhaps more certain,
returns, especially when education loans and scholarships are difficult
to obtain. High-quality general education tends to be expensive,
deterring its provision in both public and private institutions.
However, especially in the long run, societies will do well to serve
the public interest even if market forces do not create the necessary
incentives. General education is, in this sense, in the same category
as basic research or equitable access.
In some countries, the term liberal education recalls colonial
domination and education. This is unfortunate. While the particular
method of education has Western roots, our stress is on an educational
approach developed by each country, paying specific attention to
its own culture and its particular needs. The goal for all countries
is similar a broad, flexible, interactive education that
addresses the whole human being but the road to achieving
this goal is unique and cannot simply be transplanted from one country
to another. The time has come for national debates to begin. What
is an educated person? Once a country has accepted the general education
concept, what are the implications for curricula and other aspects
This debate is under way in a number of developing countries. Some
institutions in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Republic
of Korea, parts of Latin America, and some others already practice
general education, although the quality of these efforts is uneven.
Most recently, the National University of Singapore has engaged
a major curricular review with the intention of creating a new core
curriculum (see Box 10). Leaders from both government and education
concluded that national preparation for the knowledge-based world
required soundly designed liberal education, as opposed to exclusive
emphasis on specialist, and usually technical, subjects. The Task
Force hopes this interest in general education will continue to
spread across the developing world, and that many more countries
will develop increasingly broad, flexible, and innovative curricula.
José Ortega y Gasset, Mission of the University (London:
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1946), p. 1. The quotes are the introductory
words of Leo Nostrand, the translator.